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ACLU threatens Princeton with lawsuit

The American Civil Liberties Union criticizes Princeton University's policy that bans the community from using the school's computer network for "political purposes" and is threatening a lawsuit if the school doesn't reverse it.

The American Civil Liberties Union today criticized Princeton University's policy that bans faculty, students and staff from using the school's computer network for "political purposes" and is threatening a lawsuit if the school doesn't reverse it.

Under the policy, Princeton, a tax-exempt institution, may not "participate in, or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office." Princeton's policy warns students that the use of computer networks for political purposes would be a violation of the university's tax-exempt status.

But according to ACLU attorneys, personal use of the network for campaign activities is constitutionally protected political speech and would not threaten Princeton's tax-exempt status.

The Princeton case is starting to pique the interest of the Internet community and tax-exempt organizations throughout the country. It raises a question as to how the Internet should be used for freedom of expression and what groups must do to protect their tax-exempt status.

The ACLU was tipped off by concerned students after they heard of the policy on July 19 via email from the vice president of computing and the university's general counsel.

Princeton officials reiterated their argument in an August 22 memo sent to members of the University, but ACLU officials don't buy it. "We definitely think that the policy is still unconstitutional and still illegitimate rational for limited use of computer network for political speech or campaigning," ACLU attorney Ann Beeson said today.

Beeson said a lawsuit is in the offing if Princeton doesn't change its mind.

Princeton officials defend their policy and plan to meet with ACLU attorneys when the school's president returns from vacation next month. "Our policy from the beginning is not to limit freedom of speech," said Justin Harmon, director of communications for Princeton. "We encourage students to talk about political issues."

Princeton issued a memo restating its policy after the ACLU contacted the university in a letter on August 15.

The ACLU said it is important to resolve the problem immediately considering the upcoming political convention. "Because we are nearing the end of an election, it is crucial that this matter be resolved quickly in order to ensure that Princeton students and staff are able to exercise fully their political speech rights," Beeson said.

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ACLU fails Princeton in free speech